Editors’ Note: In anticipation of the 88th Academy Awards on February 28,
we present a series exploring the philosophical and theological elements in each of the eight films nominated for Best Picture. This post contains no spoilers.
When faced with a masterpiece, one trembles with the anxious urge to say too much. Consider the predicament of the author of Genesis 1. In the midst not just of the poetry of creation but the emergence of poetics itself, how does one punctuate the calling into being of what does not exist? The commentary that the author puts on the lips of the Creator is the six-fold repetition of the judgment “good,” culminating at last in that comparatively robust verbosity: “very good.” Such is the extent of verbal commentary on the masterpiece of creation and indeed creativity itself.
The Revenant is a masterpiece. Its creation depends upon the most fundamental elements: water and blood, wood and fire, sun and snow, day and night, breath and wind. There appears a ferocious ambivalence to the oscillations between serenity and savagery not only among these elements but also within each element itself. The oscillations of elemental nature whose master is unknown are reduplicated in the ferocious ambivalence of human nature—the only possible exception to whatever is the general rule of nature at large. Does the nature of the human being move with the seemingly primeval force of survival and its final consequence—revenge—or with the sublimity of mercy? Then again, perhaps this binary is itself subject to a final solution—that there is no rule other than the flux of unbiased ambivalence.
On these questions, the filmmaker takes a stand. In doing so, that final option is, at least for the filmmaker, ruled out: unruly and un-ruled ambivalence does not rule. The cinematography and elegance of film direction pronounce this commentary. The delicate, artistic suturing of what might have otherwise been disjointed scenes—like jump cuts between one element of nature and the next, between one set of characters and the next, between the elements of nature and the characters themselves—become expressions of currents within a grander flow. As the river bends and the wind blows, the narrative of the land and the beasts and human beings alike are moving in, with, against, and by something. That water is a featured part of this artistry is no small matter, for the flowing of water is often an approximation of the unfathomable ambivalence of impermanence, whether apprehended serenely in Eastern religions or violently from the pen of Friedrich Nietzsche. The unmistakable intentional artistry of the filmmaker, especially when touching on transitions, suggests that this film attempts to say something about ultimate meaning: first, that there is one; and second, that it is either survival (and thus revenge), or it is mercy.
The case for the rule of survival is represented variously but summarily in the story’s antagonist, and further still in one line delivered with the singular conviction of a bear protecting her cubs: “Turns out that God is a squirrel, so I shot and ate that son-of-a-b****.” Even at the end of the pursuit of transcendence, all you find is prey, meat, survival. Eat or be eaten; everything else is illusion and ultimately weakness. That’s one possibility the film proffers.
As for the other side, if mercy rather than vengeance is the rule, then it is a mercy that is just as fierce as vengeance and one which, in fact, holds vengeance within its embrace. But to loosen one’s grip on the claim to vengeance, even if only to send one’s claim back into the flowing waters that you cannot control, is to wade into the sublimity of mercy. It is a mercy not only pronounced upon another but a mercy you allow to be pronounced upon yourself: I myself need not bear the weight of pronouncing final judgment. If not comforting, this mercy is freeing even in its fierceness. That’s the other possibility the film proffers.
Even in the company of all sorts of extenuating circumstances and material for special pleading, the narrative presses towards the mutual exclusivity of these two possibilities: vengeance or mercy, survival or transcendence. This question is settled in the most revered element within all of nature: the human heart. From within the hidden recesses of this wild frontier, where unannounced motivations reside and the most fundamental choices are made, The Revenant presses a bold commentary on the meaning of creation per se. Reverberating through flowing water and blowing wind, coursing blood and respiring breath, crackling flame and breaking dawn, splintering wood and silencing night, the heart speaks: I do not move for survival alone because I am moved in mercy. And mercy returns mercy, ferocious and sharp.
I could go on to comment on what this film says about God, but I won’t. I could attempt to further analyze the meaning and use of violence, about who should and who shouldn’t see this film. I could even say that this isn’t only the best film of the year but also the best film of the past decade (see the image of my initial review). But to say any of that is likely to say too much, to give in to that anxious urge that masterpieces stir. As it is, I’ve already said a lot. So all I should say in final judgment about this film is what I hear the film itself saying about what human nature reveals about raw nature, even with all the seemingly chaotic rough-and-tumble of the wilderness: it is “very good.”